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ROME – After South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited Pope Francis to visit North Korea last week, a prominent archbishop indicated that the Vatican is working to foster conditions in which a papal visit to the Asian nation is possible.
Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Clergy and who is originally from Daejeon, South Korea, told reporters that “as with the [South Korean] government, the Vatican also makes efforts to foster conditions for the pope to visit North Korea through various channels.”
Noting that Pope Francis said he was willing to visit if he received a formal invitation from North Korea, You said the pope’s remark “should be digested just as it is,” and that he would not elaborate further on the matter, “as it could be understood as the pope’s thoughts.”
A visit depends on the response from North Korea, he said, insisting that when it comes to international relations, both sides must respect each other with a “give and take” approach.
The Vatican could play this role if they are asked, You said, noting that the Catholic Church already has a footprint in North Korea through organizations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio – the pope’s favorite of the so-called ‘new movements’, which is dedicated to charitable and social work and is also helping to negotiate the peace process in South Sudan.
A delegation from Sant’Egidio visited North Korea in 2018 to promote its humanitarian work in the country, delivering food, medicines, and medical equipment to the Wonsan Pediatric Hospital, among other things. They also met with high-level authorities during their visit.
The invitation to visit North Korea was made during a private Oct. 29 meeting between Pope Francis and Moon while the latter was in Rome for a G20 leaders’ summit.
On that occasion, Moon asked the pope if he would consider visiting North Korea to help foster peace between the two nations, arguing that a papal visit to Pyeongyang would give momentum to the whole peace process.
In response, Pope Francis, who visited South Korea in 2014, said he would go if he received an invitation from North Korean authorities.
This was the second time Moon has asked Pope Francis to visit North Korea, which has yet to receive a papal visit.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Lee Jong Joo, voiced hope to journalists during a Nov. 1 briefing that the North would consider the visit, saying, “we hope to see the North respond and secure this opportunity to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
“A papal visit to North Korea could be a great opportunity to promote peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula,” he said, adding, “If related discussions between the Vatican and North Korea show progress, the Ministry will make efforts to ensure that the pope’s visit can be an opportunity to gain international consensus and actually promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
On Tuesday, presidential spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee told Korean broadcaster KBS radio that “various efforts are under way” to make a papal visit to North Korea possible, “but it’s difficult to predict the timing.”
Responding to questions on when a possible trip might happen, Park said it would likely not happen during winter – which lasts from roughly the end of November to the end of February – because “The pope is from Argentina, which is a warm country, so my understanding is that it’s difficult for him to travel in the winter.”
The request for a papal visit to North Korea comes as Moon is seeking international support for a declaration formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which concluded with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, meaning the two nations are technically still at war.
Moon, who only has six more months in office before his term comes to an end, believes that an “end of war declaration” is needed in order to establish trust, to begin denuclearization talks, and to secure a lasting peace agreement.
However, critics of the proposal have voiced fear that a declaration could undermine the U.S.-South Korea relations and potentially weaken international pressure on North Korea over its weapons programs, with many observers noting that both Koreas in the past have failed to follow through on previous efforts to end the war.
“A visit to North Korea by the pope, who is constantly praying for peace on the Korean Peninsula, is not a (publicity) event but a noble action in its own right,” Park said.
Referring to speculation that the government is seeking to use a papal visit to draw North Korean leaders to the table for an inter-Korean summit on the margins of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, Park said, “We would like it to be viewed on its own, rather than in connection with an end-of-war declaration or the Beijing Olympics.”
While in Rome for the G20, South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee In-young met with senior U.N. and Vatican officials to discuss issues related to North Korea.
During the meetings – held with Executive Director of the United Nations Food Agency David Beasley and Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development –North Korea’s food situation was assessed, and the parties discussed ways to address humanitarian concerns in the North, according to a statement from the ministry.
This meeting included discussion on what role the Vatican could play on both the humanitarian front, and in the peace process, the ministry said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen